By Jon Paul “J.P.” Brooker, Florida Conservation for Ocean Conservancy
In its Aug. 15 editorial, the Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board correctly calls for the relisting of manatees as an endangered species, but notes it has “zero confidence that the current Legislature and governor are going to have a fit of courage and pass new environmental rules to crack down on polluters.”
The trouble with this “zero confidence” position is that it has the effect of letting the pressure off Tallahassee in favor of a federal action. That federal action won’t solve the bigger problems that are threatening manatees: water quality deterioration due to excessive nutrient inputs, and warming water due to a changing climate.
The reality is, we must have both federal action and state action, or our iconic Floridian ocean and coasts are doomed. And it’s not just our manatees at risk, it’s a coast-wide ecological problem.
The federal government can and should be involved. The Endangered Species Act and other proposals from Congress can help shine the light on manatees — but we need more and we need it to come from all levels, from the Florida citizen, to the town hall, to Tallahassee, to Washington.
It’s not simply a matter of courage for the Legislature. It’s an existential matter of taking action now or losing the opportunity forever.
The cold hard fact is: Florida is at a water quality and climate crossroads, and manatees are our canary in the coal mine. They are dying off in record numbers because we humans have made Florida waters inhospitable to them.
Simply put, we are putting too much nutrient pollution in Florida water and we are not doing enough to protect manatees and their habitat from climate change.
Without addressing nutrient inputs at the state level, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus from a litany of sources — agricultural, industrial, residential, municipal — Florida’s water quality horrors are never going to get fixed, and manatees and other animals will continue to suffer, regardless of an endangered listing. Statewide we are going to have cycle after cycle of noxious harmful algal blooms, including red tide events, blue-green algal blooms, brown algae, pseudo-nitzschia, sargassum proliferation, and more.
Additionally, our state’s lack of action to combat climate change, including by limiting carbon inputs into the atmosphere and not solely focusing on adapting to a rising sea, is like pouring gas on the nutrient pollution fire. Warming temperatures nurture algal growth and hasten the resulting harm to fish, to sea grass, to human beings, to sea turtles, and to manatees. Scientists have determined that manatees are especially susceptible to warming water temperatures, but they aren’t the only wildlife damaged.
Yes, let’s relist manatees as endangered and get enhanced federal protections for their critical habitat. But let’s also acknowledge that these efforts are triage compared to the greater crisis. We must have concerted, widespread efforts coming from the state level to focus on water quality and on a changing climate. This is the only way to make the significant and substantive strides necessary for long-term recovery of manatees and the continued preservation of Florida’s environment.
As the Legislature convenes its committees in September, Speaker Chris Sprowls (R-Palm Harbor) and Senate President Wilton Simpson (R-Trilby) should prioritize legislation to further address water quality and reduce our contribution to climate change.
There are opportunities to build on the Clean Waterways Act that was passed in 2020 by enhancing and expanding the scope of the Basin Management Action Plans and the Best Management Practices that deal with nutrient inputs to compromised waterways from all kinds of point source and non-point sources.
There are also opportunities to continue to build on resilience legislation, by appointing a Chief Resilience Officer to take up a statewide climate approach that includes adapting to rising sea levels in addition to curbing carbon inputs that are fueling climate change.
This is really a simple, bipartisan issue. Act now, or lose iconic wildlife forever. Without decisive action at the state level, the long-term health and stability of Florida’s ocean and coasts are in jeopardy, and that includes our beloved manatees. And a Florida without manatees is a Florida that nobody, natives or visitors, can abide.
This commentary was first published in The Orlando Sentinel.
Jon Paul “J.P.” Brooker is an attorney and the director of Florida Conservation for Ocean Conservancy. He was born and raised in Brevard County.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.